The adage that there is a finite number of plots must extend to reality TV programs. The Dating Experiment combines several of the most interesting reality TV plots yet somehow delivers some of the most boring results. The U.S. version of a very successful Japanese reality TV series called Mirai Nikki, on paper, the series looks promising, borrowing some of the best gimmicks from Survivor, The Real World, and The Bachelor.
Here’s what happens: two strangers are sent to a romantic location such as San Francisco or San Juan, where they are ensconced in separate hotel rooms. Having left their friends, family, and money behind, they follow directions written in red diaries. They spend one week together and then they part forever, unless they decide to write their own ending to the “story.” Both must want to meet again for the romance to continue once the “experiment” ends.
Other reality shows offer viewers an opportunity to see how “ordinary” people behave in extreme situations. Few viewers can say they’ve been picked to live in France with seven strangers, chosen to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” fellow contestants in the Amazon jungle, or tried to fool a group of women into believing they were millionaires. However, there’s hardly anyone who hasn’t been on a bad date. That’s the first problem. This reality show is too ordinary.
The second problem is the diary. It’s contrived and worse, it’s badly written. At least the directives on Survivor are poetic and cryptic. The players and the audience are left guessing what the next challenge will be. On The Dating Experiment, the diary has entries such as “Ed and Shanna have a romantic evening.” Yawn.
The premiere episode started on a promising note. Morgan, a bartender from Seattle, and Shy, another bartender from Houston, spend their first date in San Francisco’s abandoned Alcatraz prison. Like a good episode of Fantasy Island, this wasn’t what they were expecting when they signed on to a dating show. They don’t like the place and they don’t much like each other. Still, they steam up a hot tub and jump out of an airplane. Along the way, the seemingly mismatched couple start to like each other.
While this sounds a little like a screwball comedy plot, the 9 July episode featuring Ed and Shanna was dull and at times cruel. Eyewear salesman Ed comes from a close-knit Italian family in Fairfield, Connecticut, and Shanna is a topless dancer from Las Vegas. But viewers see in Ed’s audition tape that he thinks strippers are sluts, so they know Shanna will eventually have to tell straight-laced Ed the truth about her occupation and that will be the end of the “relationship.” For Shanna, it’s a personal and painful revelation; she’s planning to go back to school, hoping to impress suitors with her brains, not her body. Why didn’t the producers find an exotic dancer who was comfortable, or at least confident, with her line of work? Or find a guy less uptight about exotic dancers? This “experiment” is a train wreck all too clearly waiting to happen.
The couple is dispatched to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a week of fun and possibly romance. In order for them to “meet cute,” the diary comes up with a Survivor-style stunt. As they walk out of their separate hotel rooms, they find strings attached to yellow poles. To meet their date, they have to follow the string. Viewers watch each of them collecting miles of string; narrator Hector Elizondo says it takes them a couple of hours. When they finally meet, they just say hello and look a bit embarrassed holding these huge balls of string. At least on Survivor, if you complete a challenge, you get a reward, like peanut butter or a hot bath. Here, the goal is an awkward introduction on a blind date.
During this first date, the diary instructs Ed to persuade Shanna to sleep with him. The problem is that Ed isn’t that kind of guy. He tells the confessional camera he thinks this is rude. He also predicts correctly that Shanna will be offended and get the wrong impression. Ed does it anyway, raising the question: why?
The episode hits a painful low-point when the couple goes to an empty movie theater to watch a film of Shanna “dancing.” Shanna is mortified and Ed is shocked. “I don’t want my girl taking her top off for anybody but me,” he tells the camera. Ed scores bonus points for trying to get to know Shanna and put aside any prejudice he might have about her dancing. However, jaded viewers at home can see this is hopeless.
There’s no way of knowing if The Dating Experiment deliberately picks couples who seem like improbable companions, and it’s unclear if the writers of the diary are working to pull them closer or push them apart. Worse, nobody here breaks the rules: you’d think someone would reveal to his or her partner what’s in their diaries. And, strange to say, this might be the one reality show that doesn’t give the players enough confessional time to talk about how they feel about the process and their partner.
The Dating Experiment manages to make romance, adventure, and the thrill of the chase incredibly boring. The chemistry-free couples make valiant efforts to get to know each other, but they can’t or won’t ignore the diary with directives like “Despite a wonderful evening, they both go home alone.” There are literally hundreds of places to find love and romance on TV, from All My Children to Sex and the City. Indeed, your neighbor’s honeymoon videos from Cancun are probably more interesting.